Would Repealing the 17th Amendment Fix the Senate?

The frenzied response to the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that would repeal Roe v. Wade has once again highlighted America’s extreme polarization, which has, in part, been driven by an ever increasing tendency to nationalize political disagreements. A turn away from this modern obsession with one-size-fits-all federal policy and back to more localized politics may help alleviate some of this national angst.

One potential—albeit maybe slightly madcap and certainly longshot—approach is to consider a repeal of the 17th Amendment, an argument last earnestly considered by the Tea Party more than a decade ago. For those who have misplaced their pocket Constitutions, the 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, reworked Article 1 of the Constitution by stipulating that U.S. senators are to be “elected by the people” rather than “chosen by the [state] Legislature.” While acknowledging that any change to the constitution seems far-fetched at this moment, it is nonetheless useful to consider how repealing the 17th Amendment could improve the state of our politics and discourse.

While the federalism argument advocated by the Tea Party still holds, it can now be supplemented with a more novel view that the 17th Amendment contributed to a reorientation of the Senate in a national manner by misdirecting senators’ focuses and warping the incentives they face. In turn, these dynamics are exceedingly fueling polarization and yielding dysfunction in Washington, D.C. Repeal may, consequently, contribute toward a reduction of this national polarization by refocusing some political energies inward.

Although the federalism and polarization arguments are related, they emphasize different things. The traditional federalism argument tends to focus on who wields policymaking power—with a preference toward the most local level of government competent enough to address an issue. It rightly contends that a return to the status quo ex ante would have the potential to increase local control and reign in the excesses of the federal government. The original purpose of the Senate was to speak for state interests, an unambiguous contrast to the House, which represents the interests of the people. This argument was made explicit in Federalist 62: “It is recommended by the … advantage … of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.”

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